Media Forum: Are the ABCes overvalued?

Is an over-reliance on the figures failing publishers, Alasdair Reid asks.

It's just as well, really, that Martin Clarke, the publisher of Mail Online, speaks from a position of strength when he questions the value of the ABCe figures. If Mail Online had posted disappointing figures in the latest results, then his comments might sound like sour grapes. No danger of that, though - the site actually came top of the pile in the numbers for June, its figure of 29.3 million monthly unique visitors placing it ahead of all other UK newspaper websites.

Clarke admits he is delighted with this outcome. But here's the caveat - the ABCe system, he reckons, actually does the British newspaper industry no favours at all. In the monthly headline figure, he argues, a random visitor who lands on the site once a month and looks at one page is given the same weight as one who visits loyally every day and consumes dozens of articles.

He adds: "The point is that yields on the internet are lower compared with print yields - and that's largely because there's a massive oversupply of inventory across the web. We're effectively competing with anyone who's ever put together a blog or a chatroom. Our argument is that if newspapers are to make money from advertising, then we have to differentiate ourselves from what every man and his dog are doing on the internet. Advertisers will not pay more for our inventory if we can't persuade them we are a high-value site.

"We've got to be more grown-up about this. For instance, we'd like to see daily figures and UK-specific figures. And we need to see (audited) figures on how long they spend there. We want to persuade advertisers that display advertising is valid on the internet. Of course, direct response is important but we don't see why the internet shouldn't be as powerful where branded advertising is concerned as, say, outdoor."

He also argues that a focus on different metrics would encourage better internet journalism. Too many publishers are tempted to run inappropriate material merely in order to attract traffic from search and aggregator sites.

Is he right? Howard Nead, a managing partner at PHD, doesn't entirely think so. He says: "Reach (for instance, a monthly unique users figure) is a valid way to express one element of a media owner's capability. For advertisers and agencies, it's useful to have that available in a common measurement form. It's a comparative figure by which we can gauge competitive performance. Having said that, we expect any media owner - and we're not just talking about online either - to be able to back that up with information about engagement, loyalty and demographic make-up."

He continues: "It's part of planning. That's why you book more than one channel on more than one day. But the main point is that all aspects play a part (when it comes to audience measurement). I don't think it's valid to imply that only one factor is in play here."

Dominic Williams, the press director of Carat, says we should just be thankful we have a transparent system these days. He adds: "We like being able to tell clients the size of audience they will get. And while it's true that we generally like a lot of information, in this instance the ABCe figure is a good starting point. It does the same job as the headline ABC figure does in the print market - and if we need more detail (about a site's audience), there are ways we can get that."

And that's sort of how Sara Linfoot, the digital innovation manager at Guardian News & Media, sees things too. She points out that the market has been pondering this issue for some time. She says: "The argument about size versus quality of audience is not a new one - and how digital publishers measure the depth of engagement of their audience is clearly the next big step in the evolution of online media. We know more about where people go online and what they do when they get there than ever before. The key is for publishers to collect this data, understand it and find audience insights to help advertisers efficiently target their consumers."

YES - Martin Clarke, publisher, Mail Online

"We have to prove that we are engaging our audience to a far higher degree than other sites - that we have a relationship with people. The first step in doing that is to stop relying on a monthly (ABCe) figure."

NO - Howard Nead, managing partner, PHD

"We expect any media owner to be able to back up (headline reach figures) with information about engagement, loyalty and demographic make-up. We expect any audience to be a mixture of heavier and lighter users."

NO - Dominic Williams, press director, Carat

"We don't see a need for pages and pages of information that might just confuse everyone. What advertisers want is one number that will reflect the relative performance of publishers' sites. And that's the aim, isn't it?"

MAYBE - Sara Linfoot, digital innovation manager, GN&M

"Counting daily visits alone will not provide all the answers but it would be part of a more relevant way to value online attention than a headline monthly figure. A cost per engagement metric will be a large part of the commercial future of newspaper websites."

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